Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments saga is the next "big thing" in YA fantasy. And it reads pretty well for YA fantasy, really.  Lots of action, teen angst, a love triangle or two.  But I spent the entire book noticing the parallels with every major YA fantasy series of the past decade (and before!) and wondering if there's really nothing new under the sun or if Clare's offering is uniquely derivative and unoriginal.

A couple of the young women I work with at church were raving about this series, planning on going to the midnight showing of the new movie and everything, and I like to have a clue what they're talking about occasionally. (Makes me feel a little less old and stodgy.)  I had heard that City of Bones started as Harry Potter fan-fiction, so I'll admit to being a bit skeptical from the start that there would be much that was original in the book.  Right from the beginning, similarities started jumping out.

A normal girl named Clary discovers she can see things others can't and realizes that she isn't who she thought she was, that her mother didn't tell her the whole truth about their past.  Her mother is, of course, kidnapped before Clary can return to confront her with this information and Clary herself is attacked as well before impressively fighting off a demon single-handedly, despite never having fought one before.  She is taken in by Shadowhunters, demon fighters, who are part of this unseen-by-mundanes mystical world and begins to learn the truth about herself and her part in this battle for the fate of the world.

The big bad is named Valentine (not Voldemort).  His followers are called the Circle (rather than Death Eaters).  Normal human beings are mundanes or mundies (not muggles).  The ultimate quest is to find three powerful magical objects called the Mortal Instruments (instead of the Deathly Hallows).  There are even flying motorcycles (but no Hagrid)!

It also turns out that the Shadowhunters were created when angels mixed their blood with humans, creating Nephilim, angel/human hybrids (there's the Unearthly series). And, of course, vampires and werewolves exist in this world (hat tip to Twilight) as do demons, witches and warlocks (hi Buffy!).  There's even a Star Wars-like twist toward the end (we're really kicking it old school now!).  It just seemed like Clare decided to cram bits of every fantasy world she's watched, read, or loved over her lifetime into a single world, which is fine. But it's not very original.

The writing itself is not particularly original either.  Lots of overused cliches and predictable plot turns. Terror tasted "sharp and coppery on her tongue like old pennies."  Her dreams "bore her along like a leaf tossed in a current."

And I'll freely admit that I was not inclined to like the books any better after this exchange early on:
"Tell me, is he [Jace] always really rude, or does he save that for mundanes?"
"Oh, he's rude to everyone," said Isabelle airly. "It's what makes him so damn sexy."
Can we please not perpetuate the ridiculous idea that rudeness = sexiness? That's just really not a quality that should be reinforced as desirable in anyone, but certainly not in a setting that implies that being treated badly is okay as long as the one treating you badly is "hot".  Rudeness is not and should not be a turn-on. Ugh.

I know this review sounds a bit down on the book, but all in all, it's really not a dreadful read.  There is a formula for YA fantasy fiction that Rowling, Meyer and others have tapped in to very successfully.  Clare is simply using that same formula and finding a measure of that same success, but not a particularly intriguing or original way.  And I'm just not interested enough to pick up the next five books in the series, though I don't expect that will put much of a dent in Ms. Clare's readership.


City of Bones
by Cassandra Clare
ISBN: 9781416914280
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).


  1. I completely disagree that there's a "formula" for YA fiction. It may seem so when reading books that are formulaic, but to paint the entire category with the same brush isn't really accurate--or at least no more accurate than books written for adults.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Stacy. I didn't mean to imply that there is only one formula for all YA fiction. But there is one "strain" of YA fiction that has used a particular formula to great success recently and that's the formula that Clare is trying to use, though, in my opinion, not as well as Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or even Stephenie Meyer.

    My post up today (9/25/13) is a book review of Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. It definitely *doesn't* follow this same formula, but is incredibly well written and effective YA fiction.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify!

  3. I wouldn't call it a formula so much as the effective or not-effective use of tropes. It's a step back from formula. There are plenty of YA and middle grade magic-school books, which use tropes which go all the way back to the Victorian era and Tom Brown's School Days. But I don't see any similarity of formula between the bestsellers you cite---just the commonality that they're bestsellers, some of which are written much better than others. If anything, the formula would be good storytelling (as opposed to excellent wordcrafting in the case of Clare or Meyer): they know how to plot a book in an exciting way, with cliffhangers and fast pacing; they have relateable characters, etc.

    There are definitely tropes in fantasy (ALL fantasy, not just fantasy for children and teens)---finding a magical object, going on a quest, coming of age, good vs. evil, inspiration from folklore, etc., but I wouldn't call any of them in themselves a formula. Perhaps it's just the connotation of the word "formula"---I saw that you enjoyed Stargirl, but it's not fantasy, and is just using a different set of tropes that are common in YA realism.

    I just see these tropes that are a tool, wielded well in some hands and stereotypically in others, and as someone who works in YA fantasy and science fiction I get annoyed when an entire genre is dismissed as formulaic.

  4. I like your distinction between "good storytelling" and "excellent wordcrafting," Stacy, and perhaps I am thinking more of poorly used tropes than a formula, per se. I was (obviously) unimpressed by "City of Bones" and a large part of that was that I felt the author was borrowing from other authors in a particularly unoriginal way.

    Fantasy and science fiction was my first reading love (I practically inhaled every Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, L'Engle, Eddings, Lewis, Tolkien, Norton, and McCaffrey I could get my hands on in middle and high school) and I still have a soft spot for it. I get irritated when I feel it's not done well because I think it makes the whole genre easier to dismiss. As I mentioned before, I didn't mean to tar the whole genre with the "formulaic" brush, just this particular author's work.

    (And I'm a wee bit jealous that you get to work in YA fantasy and science fiction.)